Upon revisiting the first two films in the original Planet of the Apes series, one thing became immediately clear to me: these aren’t just campy 60s sci-fi films, but legitimate works of science-fiction cinema that challenge and thoroughly entertain. This is especially true of the first film, which I have no problem calling a masterpiece. A bold statement, I know, especially for a film that’s reputation rests mostly on punchlines (“Take your stinkin’ paws off me, you damned dirty ape!”) and its legacy of spawning numerous sequels and two reboots. But the first Apes film and, to a lesser extent, its deeply strange and curious sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, offer more genuine intellectual interest and genre pleasures than most sci-fi films today.
I’m a seeker too. But my dreams aren’t like yours. I can’t help thinking that somewhere in the universe there has to be something better than man. Has to be. — George Taylor
As noted above, the first film, Planet of the Apes (1968) is better remembered for the numerous one-liners spouted by its leading man, Charlton Heston, and its twist ending, than for its many cinematic successes. Heston, whose reputation in recent years has taken an unfair beating, is no less than fantastic as the arrogant hero of the film, George Taylor. For a leading man, Taylor is surprisingly callous and lacking in tact. Upon crash-landing on the unknown planet, he casually informs his two surviving compatriots that everyone they ever knew and loved are dead, with the inference being that they better get over it.
Taylor, in his search for something better than man, is going to have his dreams crushed. His initial reaction upon meeting the primitive humans—the famous “if this is the best they’ve got around here, in six months we’ll be running this planet,”—confirms Taylor as both a cynic and supremely confident in his own abilities. His encounter with the apes will humble him, though he retains his critical stance and this translates into deep distrust of the apes, though he does find allies in Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowall).
Most importantly, Taylor’s cynical outlook and arrogance means that when confronted with the absurdity of the film’s central conceit—that of a world where apes and men have found their situations reversed—he doesn’t accept it or go along with it easily. He feels the insanity of it and isn’t afraid to say so (“It’s a mad house, a mad house!”). In this way the film rejects both an expectation of easy suspension of disbelief or pandering to genre expectations. Instead, Taylor’s position is aligned with that of a skeptical viewer; it’s true that the film’s idea is insane, and the film builds that into its structure. Planet of the Apes never falls into parody or mockery, but it also avoids the overly-serious manner in which many films today treat their patently goofy premises.
This also means that Planet of the Apes takes its messages—about the hubris of man and the way that societies use both science and religion as means to prop up inequality—seriously, but doesn’t forget that it’s forwarding this message through a fairly outrageous premise.
Beyond the iconic performance from Charlton Heston and the fantastic make-up effects that allow Hunter, McDowall, and Maurice Evans as Dr. Zaius to actually give real performances as the ape characters, the film deserves recognition for its wonderful nearly-experimental score by Jerry Goldsmith. Its atonal, percussive nature sets the tone for the film very well. Director Franklin J. Schaffner, who would go on to direct such films as Patton and The Boys from Brazil, allows the film to breathe, giving it a pace that builds to moments of striking discovery.
Planet of the Apes ends with one of the most iconic twists in cinema history, as Taylor discovers that this topsy-turvy world was actually Earth all along. The film doesn’t underscore his discovery, rather letting the weight of it sink in, the only sound the lapping of the waves on the shore as Taylor kneels in the sand in despair. The idea that humanity had destroyed themselves in nuclear war, creating the Forbidden Zone and dooming themselves to devolution, are only tangentially explored. But the imagery of the ending is strong and it looms over the entire series.
The follow-up, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, would push these ideas further, upping the wildness of the plot while lowering the production budget. Heston himself was reluctant to appear in the sequel unless Taylor was killed off in the end. The film follows much of the same trajectory of the first, as a second spaceship follows Taylor’s ship looking for him, and the survivor, Brent (James Franciscus) encounters many of the characters met in the first one. Brent does seem a pale imitation of Taylor, down to copying his path to the ape city, but who wouldn’t seem out of their league next to Heston at his best?
Where Beneath goes really out there is in introducing the human mutants dwelling in the Forbidden Zone, worshiping a surviving atomic bomb. It’s a twist of daring madness, but despite the stretching of the Apes world to the point of breaking, it is wonderful in the imagery and notions it introduces. The mutant humans wear masks covering their scarred faces and worship the bomb with a strange liturgy that borrows from the Christian tradition while twisting it into something frightening. How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb, indeed.
Beneath ends by literally blowing the whole thing to hell. It’s a bold ending as shocking for its audacity as it is for the numerous loose ends it leaves dangling (for instance: the fate of Cornelius and Zira is abandoned about three quarters of the way through the film). But it also forced the story to go literally back in time for future installments, lending the remainder of the original series a wonderful ambiguity in terms of whether the planet of the apes would be fated or how it came about in the first place.
It’s clear to me that these films would never be made today. Too zany for most, and yet too committed to the exploring of their world and the moral dilemmas it raises, Planet of the Apes and Beneath the Planet of the Apes are true gems of late-60s and early-70s genre filmmaking.
Planet of the Apes (1968, USA)
Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner; written by Michael Wislon and Rod Serling; starring Charlton Heston, Roddy McDowall, Maurice Evans, Kim Hunter, James Whitmore, James Daly, and Linda Harrison.
10 out of 10
Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970, USA)
Directed by Ted Post; written by Paul Dehn; starring James Franciscus, Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans, Linda Harrison, and Charlton Heston.
8 out of 10